A dissident hub just five miles from Damascus, the suburb of Daraya had been a thorn in the side of the Syrian government since the 1990s. When the civil war erupted in 2011, it became a battleground. President Bashar al-Assad’s forces laid siege to the town in 2012, cutting off water and electricity and blockading food supplies; a barrel-bombing campaign claimed many civilian lives. While the majority of Daraya’s residents fled, about 8,000 stayed and endured four years of terror and privation.
Amid this chaos, a group of anti-Assad activists salvaged thousands of books from the wreckage of bombed out houses, and established a makeshift library in the basement of an abandoned building. (They made a note of each book’s provenance, with a view to returning them to their owners after the war.) Delphine Minoui, a French journalist based in Istanbul, interviewed several of them via Skype and WhatsApp during the course of the siege. As she recounts in The Book Collectors of Daraya, the library became a haven, a subterranean cultural centre where the beleaguered activists watched movies and participated in discussions: “In this protected place, they’ve managed to establish an atmosphere of collective intimacy, as well as a sense of ethics, discipline, and, oddly enough, normality.”
Three of Minoui’s interviewees are journalists and photographers with a media centre run by Daraya’s local council. The others include a Free Syrian Army soldier and a graffiti artist known as “the Banksy of Syria”. Their reading habits are admirably varied, ranging from the 14th-century Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldun to the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish; the library’s co-founder, Ahmad, has a fondness for American self-help books. None of them appear to fit Assad’s characterisation of his opponents as religious extremists. When Minoui asks Omar, a former engineering student, if he considers himself a jihadist, he denounces al-Nusra, al-Qaeda and Isis: “Those people don’t represent our ideas . . . Don’t forget that the revolt began with calls for justice and respect for human rights, not for Islam.”
First published in French in 2017 and now available in English thanks to Lara Vergnaud’s translation, The Book Collectors of Daraya celebrates the political and therapeutic power of the written word. In a climate of censorship and oppression, Minoui writes, “reading is an act of transgression. It’s an affirmation of the freedom they’ve been deprived of for too long.” She labours this point with a succession of slightly syrupy metaphors: reading is “a Band-Aid for the soul”; “A melody of words against the dirge of bombs”. Omar puts it in rather simpler — and more powerful — language: “War is destructive. It transforms men, kills emotions . . . Reading reminds us that we’re human.”
The siege of Daraya ended in August 2016 with a forced evacuation: the civilian population, with about 700 anti-Assad fighters, were escorted to the rebel-controlled city of Idlib, leaving Assad to claim what was left of the town. Regime soldiers stumbled upon the library, and pillaged it. Only a month earlier, Omar was killed by an air strike, aged just 24. There is little here to smile about, and yet the book strikes a defiant and cautiously optimistic note. Reflecting on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Ahmad tells Minoui: “You went through this in France. The revolution didn’t happen overnight . . . it took years, but France succeeded in getting what it wanted. Social justice, democracy, human rights. That gives me hope.”
The Book Collectors of Daraya: A Band of Syrian Rebels, Their Underground Library, and the Stories that Carried Them Through a War by Delphine Minoui, translated by Lara Vergnaud, Picador £16.99, 208 pages